Partners in decline

Europe is an easy target for a frustrated Washington. But this misses a fundamental point. The US and Europe are the best allies they?ve each got. Both are declining powers that need to stick together.

It’s anti-Europe season again in the United States. Once the season opens (usually from the second year of a presidential mandate), Cabinet officials and analysts start hunting Europeans. “They don’t do enough. They don’t fight enough.”  Their complaints go on and on.

In a speech last week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said: “The demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” His views have been followed up by commentators. In Foreign Policy magazine, Andrew J Bacevich’s (“Let Europe Be Europe”) argued that the US should leave a dysfunctional NATO and hand the pacifist Europeans the remains of the Cold War alliance.   

But this seasonal activity misses a fundamental point: the US and Europe are the best allies they’ve each got. Yes, they have similar traditions, share values and have a history of cooperation behind them. Yes, those interests are not always the same. But most importantly, the US and Europe are on the same side of today’s geopolitical dividing line: both are declining powers with a shared, vested interest in the liberal status quo.

Even if Europeans and Americans enjoy a standard of living enviable to the rest of the world, the reality of the “double decline” is unarguable. Their respective declines may be happening at different speeds, but there is no doubt the US and Europe will continue to slip into irrelevance.

Europe had one quarter of the world’s population in 1900, around 15% in 1950 and has only 7% today. Its share is expected to go down to 5% by 2050. The EU’s GDP as a percentage of global GDP has shrunk from 28% in 1950 to 21% today, and may be as little as 18% in 2050. True, the US’s decline is not as steep, but the rapid rise of countries like China, India and Brazil mean it will inevitably be pushed to the sidelines. These facts are denied today only by an odd alliance of Hollywood studios, the Republican Party and romantic Europeans. Each of these are carrying on as before, perpetuating block-buster myths about the limitless power of the West.

The truth, however, is altogether more depressing. Yet it is upon this premise – and not how many troops European governments have deployed to Afghanistan – which should shape debates surrounding the transatlantic link and discussions about NATO’s future.

The fight against the Taliban is important but not endless – voters will not allow it to be. One day American and European soldiers will come home. Hopefully the withdrawal of all forces will come after a victory (however defined), but we all know that isn’t a given. Few people hearing President Obama’s West Point address earlier this year were left in any doubt that the US commitment is time-limited. It certainly seems that President Karzai believes NATO forces will not be in his country for as long as they have been. His recent moves to take control over a key election body, which received and documented reports of massive fraud in last year’s presidential vote, is his preparation for a post-American Afghanistan. Put simply, the US and Europe are leaving and even the Kabul government knows it.

So to judge allies on whether they are willing to join NATO’s fight against the Taliban is short-sighted. Imagine if the US had in the past chosen its allies exclusively on whether they were willing to fight alongside the 82 Airborne.  That would have meant abandoning an alliance with Britain after Harold Wilson resisted repeated attempts by Lyndon Johnson to secure a British commitment of troops to the Vietnam War.

Thankfully, US policy-makers did not go down this route. Quite the opposite: after World War II they sought to cement an all-purpose alliance, based both on values and interests. They knew the importance of looking beyond the current war. Perhaps the end of the Cold War was a time to kill off NATO, but the Balkan crises of the 1990s and post-9/11 security challenges proved that the alliance was still needed. The same is true today. The alternative – to replace NATO with an ad hoc ABCD alliance (for America, Britain, Canada and Denmark) may give the US enough firepower for today’s wars, but less of the legitimacy and flexibly that NATO offers.

What about Europe? Does the continent need the US for its defense? My colleague Nick Witney says no. Russia is no longer a conventional threat, he argues, and though it may represent a challenge in a number of different ways, this cannot be stopped by NATO. The real challenge for Moscow is a birthrate plunge, a collapsing military, pervasive corruption and problems such as HIV, tuberculosis and heroin abuse — concentrated not just among ethnic Russians but also among those of childbearing age — which means that Russia is facing demographic decline. In his view, Russia is an ascending power in the short run, but it is a declining power in the long run.

But even if this analysis holds, the short-run may be a very uncomfortable period for Russia’s neighbors. Russia’s military may be hollowed-out, but, as in Georgia, it has shown it can still do damage. With many NATO members worrying that the mutual self-defence commitment inherent in article 5 of the Atlantic Charter has been watered out, Russia’s power remains – and needs to be deterred including through conventional means, which requires a continued involvement by the US.

Of course NATO has to change. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is right to point to the alliance’s many deficiencies. In particular, greater European defence investments are needed if the US is to remain committed to the alliance. Here the US should advance, not sound the retreat.  The EU’s member-states, even France and Britain, have lost and will never regain the ability to finance all the necessary capabilities by themselves. Only cooperation amongst Europeans can eliminate the massive waste associated with the duplication of resources by member-states, and help transform Europe’s armed forces into modern militaries capable of contributing to global security. The US administration should publicly support such efforts.

If it does back greater EU defence cooperation, the US is more likely to get the kind of ally in Europe it needs to address a range of contingencies as well as a partner to help manage, and even precipitate, a collective decline. Together, the US and Europe can help manage and perhaps even mitigate their collective decline. Alone, however, both will be hunted.

A version of this piece was published by Foreign Policy



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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